Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 6/8/18
Courtesy of Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
Entering the fourth quarter of the Patriot League Semifinals against No. 11 Navy, the Lehigh men’s lacrosse team trailed by one. Despite playing in the quarterfinals just three nights prior, the Mountain Hawks were forced to come back against a team that hadn’t played in nearly a week.
The Mountain Hawks were at a crossroads of their season. The way they responded would help define the 2018 campaign.
“It was really a huge gut check and that’s what we talked about in the huddle going into the fourth quarter,” said Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese. “I told the guys we were going to find out exactly how tough we were.”
It took just 26 seconds for the Mountain Hawks to pull even, then Lehigh took the lead just 1:24 later. From there, the sides went back-and-forth, with the Mountain Hawks controlling much of the play despite it being their second game in the span of four days. Lehigh finished with an 8-5 edge in fourth-quarter shots while sophomore Conor Gaffney (Lenape-NJ) did not lose a faceoff in the fourth quarter or overtime.
“It started with Conor and what he did at the faceoff dot to get us possession,” said Cassese. “We scored right away then we put our heads down and started grinding for the rest of the quarter. We had a chance in the final seconds of regulation. I think a lot of immature teams that aren’t quite as tough might have said that was our shot. But our guys just kept grinding.
“We won the first faceoff of overtime, Teddy Leggett collected a huge groundball and we executed the play out of the timeout [leading to Lucas Spence’s game-winning goal]. That speaks to the toughness and maturity of the group, to be able to fight even though we weren’t playing on a full tank.”
That 10-9 overtime win over Navy truly encapsulates the Mountain Hawks’ season. Just one week prior, Lehigh dropped a 14-7 final at Bucknell, the team’s third straight defeat and fourth in its final five games. Just seven days later, the Mountain Hawks advanced to their fourth Patriot League Championship Game in the last seven years.
A season of ebbs and flows began with a 7-2 beginning, which made the three straight losses down the stretch even tougher. However, all three defeats came vs. top 15 teams. Playing some of the nation’s best teams allowed Lehigh to learn about and reassess itself, take a step back and figure out how to reach the goal of a championship.
“You can call it losing, but I’m a big believer that it’s more about learning,” said Cassese. “Either you win or you learn. For us, we did a lot of learning when we were taking those losses in April.
“We learned a lot about our DNA on the defensive end and we learned a lot about how we had to play on the offensive end to complement the defense. We got exposed by some really good teams and some really good players in that stretch. We were able to quickly use that to our advantage as we headed into the Patriot League Tournament. We understood how hard we had to play, but also understood the style that we had to play at a consistent level in order to compete and win big games.”
The Mountain Hawks’ loss to Bucknell came on Friday, Apr. 20 with the Patriot League Quarterfinals quickly approaching on Tuesday, the 24th. It takes a mature group of individuals, and the right culture, for a team make changes in a short amount of time.
That’s exactly what happened.
“I’m proud of our guys for the trust they showed in me as the head coach, the entire coaching staff and the leaders within the team,” said Cassese. “There was a level of understanding that we were humbled, but we’re ‘all in’ on whatever it would take to win. They showed that trust and they went on to execute the game plan that we needed in the Patriot League Tournament.
“And if you look at it, in 10 of the 12 quarters (during the tournament), we played our best lacrosse of the season.”
The Mountain Hawks began the 2018 season with high expectations, and they ended the year right where they thought they’d be, competing for a title and NCAA Tournament berth. In between, there were plenty of ups and downs. The end result was a strong step forward for the program.
Lehigh began the season 4-1, with the only loss coming to North Carolina in overtime. A Mar. 10 road contest at No. 12 Army West Point was the breakthrough the Mountain Hawks needed.
“Our Army game in particular was a huge one,” said Cassese. “No one on our roster had beaten those guys. That was a main breakthrough for this team to say all right, we have something going here that can be pretty special. Also, the way that we won, it was a really gritty win and one that was important for our program.”
In that game, the Mountain Hawks fought back from an early 2-0 deficit to take a 4-2 lead. Army used a third-quarter surge to go up 6-5 heading into the fourth. But like they would find themselves down by one in the Patriot League Semifinals, the Mountain Hawks answered. Junior Andrew Pettit (Tower Hill-DE) scored three straight fourth-quarter goals, all in the span of 2:20, to turn a one-goal deficit into a two-goal lead, on the way to the 9-7 victory.
Standing 5-1 on the season coming off a win like that, the Mountain Hawks were ranked for the first time since 2015. The team followed with a hard-fought, one-goal defeat against another ranked team in Rutgers, Lehigh then dominated rival Lafayette before facing another ranked team in Hofstra.
“Going up to Hofstra in a tough day trip, night game against a great team at home, to win that game helped give us some momentum in big games,” said Cassese. “I believe there was a thought in our guys’ minds that we had this big win against Army but then turn around and lose to Rutgers. How good are we and how good can we be? That Hofstra game really helped our guys believe in themselves and realize that we had a chance to consistently compete at this top 20 level.”
The team had confidence, but faced an extremely challenging schedule down the stretch. Lehigh dropped a home contest against Navy despite holding the edge in nearly every statistical category. Then at Boston University, the Terriers scored four straight third-quarter goals to take a two-goal lead.
With their backs against the wall, the Mountain Hawks held Boston University scoreless for the game’s final 18:57 and ended the game on a 3-0 run (including the game-winning goal from Mickey Fitzpatrick with 39 seconds remaining) to pick up a hard-fought 7-6 road win.
That marked Lehigh’s last win until a dominant 11-6 victory over Colgate in the Patriot League Quarterfinals, followed by the overtime win vs. Navy three days later.
Less than 48 hours later, the Mountain Hawks stood tied at No. 6 Loyola in the Patriot League Championship Game. Lehigh played with tremendous energy and poise, putting the host Greyhounds on their heels. Unfortunately, the Mountain Hawks fell victim to a third-quarter Loyola surge.
“I was proud of the effort even though the outcome wasn’t what we wanted,” said Cassese. “The first half, we were rolling on pure adrenaline. We didn’t have a lot left in our tanks. It was a lot of lacrosse in a short period of time (third game in six days) against some very talented, but also tough and physical teams in Colgate, Navy and Loyola.
“We basically put our Loyola game plan in place in a banquet room in the hotel without any practice,” Cassese continued. “It takes some maturity and intelligence to be able to absorb that information in that setting and then go out and execute the way we did in the first half. It was a scheme that was brand new and one we had not practiced before. I was proud of the guys for executing it really well for the first half.”
In the end, Lehigh finished its season 10-7, getting itself back to the Patriot League Semifinals and Championship Game for the first time since 2014. After three consecutive years of the season ending in the quarterfinals, the Mountain Hawks took several steps closer to a championship in 2018.
“We were able to finish second in our league, which is a real challenge based on the overall strengths of the Patriot League,” said Cassese. “Ten-win seasons are hard to come by. That puts you in the top 25 percent of the country. It’s really hard to win 10 Division I lacrosse games.”
Individually, a number of players made huge strides. Junior Craig Chick broke more caused turnover records, finishing with 41 on the year which broke his own school record. If he gets 41 as a senior, he will become the NCAA’s all-time leader in that category. Pettit emerged as one of the nation’s premier goal scorers, which included posting seven points at the nation’s No. 1 ranked scoring defense in Hofstra. Lucas Spence (Springfield-Delco) broke out for 58 points, recording multiple points in every game during the year. In the end, Chick, Pettit, Spence, Gaffney, junior Eddie Bouhall and freshman Teddy Leggett all garnered All-League recognition, the Mountain Hawks’ most honorees since 2013. Also, freshman goalie James Spence (Springfield-Delco) solidified the position and showed great promise for the future.
What is most exciting? All six will return in 2019, along with a plethora of other talent all over the field.
The Mountain Hawks enjoyed success in 2018, but are far from satisfied.
“We need to understand what got us to 10 wins, but we also need to understand what got us to seven losses,” said Cassese. “We need to make sure that we continue to improve in all areas and we understand that the modest success we realized was nice, but we shouldn’t be content with modest success.
“We should be proud that we got back to the big stage within the Patriot League, but we should also confront the fact that we didn’t accomplish our mission of winning the Patriot League Championship. Coming up a little bit short should leave a sour taste in our mouths and motivate everyone to work hard in the offseason and come back next fall as focused and hungry as ever. We have a lot of talent coming back, a lot of veterans, and a strong leadership group.
“I believe we have a tremendous opportunity ahead of us and now is the time to push forward and really go after this.”